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On germ patrol at the gym

September 18, 2006|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Gyms, in my book, should be clean. Not just somewhat kept up, but absolutely spotless. That's why I have no hesitation chasing down people who fail to wipe down their machine after sliming it with copious amounts of sweat or who leave the shower with questionable things floating atop the drain.

I've always felt alone in this fixation. Then I met Marcia Jeffries, an environmental health specialist with the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health, Recreational Health Program.

It's her job to make sure that gym locker rooms are mildew-free, pools are crystal clear, and saunas don't have anything scary growing in them (she also checks out pools and spas in apartment complexes, condos, hotels, schools and hospitals). If you file a complaint against your gym for scummy machines or fetid hot tubs, Jeffries (or one of her colleagues) will check it out -- often the same day -- write the gym up if necessary, make sure the managers have fixed the problem, schedule a court hearing if they haven't, and get back to you with the results. She carries a badge.

Well, actually, she leaves her badge at home because she doesn't like to tote it around. If I had a badge, you can bet I'd be flashing it everywhere, like at dinner parties.

I followed the 59-year-old Jeffries around for a day to not only see what she encounters, but also to find out if gyms are potentially big petri dishes loaded with horrible disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Not that that's on my mind a lot.

Jeffries reassured me that most are pretty clean, because it's just good business practice. But she's seen some things in her 20 years as an inspector in L.A. (16 of those in environmental health), things most people shouldn't see. Gross things. Icky things.

Test time

On a recent morning, our first stop is at 24 Hour Fitness in West Hollywood. After informing management that she's here on a routine inspection, Jeffries heads straight for the women's whirlpool, tools in hand: a water testing kit and official health department forms.

The whirlpool's heater isn't working (which explains the absence of people), but Jeffries still checks the water by scooping some into a small, calibrated acrylic box and adding chemicals that turn the water a specific color, based on chlorine and pH levels (pinkish for chlorine, reddish to orange for pH). Pronouncing both OK, Jeffries says that the lack of heat isn't an issue, but excessive heat is. "Anything above 104 degrees is dangerous," she says, and in violation of code, which means she can tell the gym to close the whirlpool. A too-hot tub can trigger a heart attack or stroke that, in the worst-case scenario, can be fatal. Inspectors don't, however, test for bacteria levels. "We don't have any labs," Jeffries says, so gym members suspicious of a high bacteria count have to take a sample to a private lab and foot the bill themselves. "But when the agent [i.e. chlorine] is good," Jeffries adds, "you know [the water] is pretty good. It's going to kill anything in there."

After checking for proper water-safety signage, Jeffries heads to the women's locker room with the no-nonsense approach of a drill sergeant checking recruit barracks. Faucets are flipped on and off, toilets are flushed and air hand-dryers are activated, creating a cacophonous symphony of bathroom noises. "Everything's in working order, just like it would be in your home," she shouts over the din. Well, in somebody's home.

Showers are inspected next: Surveying the dirt-free grout, she pronounces these showers "really clean. They're doing a good job." Then she notices a couple of tiles missing from the bottom corner of one of the shower stalls. "That's a minor violation and needs to be repaired," she says. "Somebody could scratch their foot."

The sauna's not working (no heat; the assistant manager says it's being checked), but Jeffries spots more broken tiles. A woman lies on a bench, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the room is barely warm.

The pool water is tested, the filter, pumps and chlorination systems inspected, and Jeffries makes sure the life preservers are in good shape. She offers this handy tip: "If you can smell chlorine, it's bad, and you shouldn't get in." High levels can exacerbate breathing problems for those with respiratory ailments, and cause bloodshot eyes and skin irritation. Insufficient levels won't kill bacteria and organisms such as algae.

Then it was time to check out the men's locker room. Because she's a woman, Jeffries can't waltz in unannounced, but she can ask management to let members know she's coming through.

When she gets the all-clear, the inspection goes smoothly. The locker room and whirlpool get a clean bill of health. She writes her report and agrees to come back in three weeks to make sure everything's been fixed. If a gym refuses to make repairs, it can be taken to court and fined, and the pool or hot tub in question shut down until fixed.

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